NPR Ed
10:08 am
Fri June 20, 2014

The Politics Of The Common Core

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday that he wants to cut ties with the Common Core State Standards, the benchmarks in reading and math that he helped bring to the state four years ago, and replace them with new, Louisiana-specific standards.

"We won't let the federal government take over Louisiana's education standards," Jindal said in a statement. "We're very alarmed about choice and local control over curriculum being taken away from parents and educators."

Jindal announced he had also asked PARCC, the consortium now developing a Core-aligned standardized test, to withdraw from Louisiana. In a press conference, he said he believed the move is tantamount to dropping the standards "because Common Core, to my mind, is defined by the test."

The move puts Jindal, a Republican who previously supported the standards, at odds with his state's Legislature, superintendent of schools and school board. It's unclear how far he can go without their support.

State Education Superintendent John White and Chas Roemer, the president of Louisiana's board of education, insist they will move ahead with the Core standards and the test tied to them.

"The governor does not have this authority," White wrote in a "Fact Sheet" responding to Jindal's comments. "The governor does not determine learning standards, nor does he create tests."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed Jindal's move as purely political.

"Gov. Jindal was a passionate supporter before he was against it. So this, from that situation, is about politics. It's not about education," Duncan said in an interview on CBS This Morning.

Backlash

Jindal's attempt to drop the Core comes amid a backlash in many states against the academic standards. The move is likely to boost his profile among conservative voters and Tea Party supporters if he mounts a 2016 presidential bid.

Critics of the Core argue that the standards are an overreach by the federal government — that they create a national curriculum, undermine teacher autonomy and local control, and put too much emphasis on standardized testing.

Supporters say too many states have long used subpar standards and that the Common Core are a necessary gut check to better prepare kids for college and the global economy.

"The standards themselves shouldn't be controversial," says Carissa Miller of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which developed the Common Core in 2009 along with the National Governors Association. "Higher standards for kids are something that most people believe in."

Miller points out that, despite the turmoil in Louisiana, "the Common Core State Standards are still strongly enforced in 43 of the original states that adopted them. States are making decisions about how it best meets their needs and adapting in the ways they need to. But high standards are still in place for those states."

The Common Core Map

This year alone, state legislatures have seen more than 340 bills related to the Core standards. That's according to a tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures. While much of that legislation made — or sought to make — minor changes to the Core standards, 35 bills (in 11 states) attempted to revoke state adoption entirely.

Jindal is just the latest Republican governor to publicly oppose the Core. In March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation making his state the first to repeal the standards. Earlier this month, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin — also a one-time Core supporter — did the same. And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill last month to replace the standards in 2015.

Both North Carolina and Missouri could soon join the list of former Core states. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has until mid-July to decide whether to sign a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature to drop the standards. And, in North Carolina, lawmakers are working to reconcile competing anti-Core bills passed by the House and Senate.

"The number of bills introduced ... has really changed the atmosphere in many of the chambers or many of the states; it's spiked the acrimony," says the National Conference of State Legislatures' Daniel Thatcher. "It's really consumed the education agenda for state legislatures this year in particular."

Supporters of the Core welcome a debate but say the arguments against the Core are rarely about the standards themselves.

"It does seem like, on the right, this isn't really about these standards, that it's not about legitimate concerns that the standards aren't good standards. But the argument about government overreach just seems to be constructed out of nothing," says Carmel Martin, executive vice president of policy for the Center for American Progress. "The facts just don't support that spin."

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests it's a little more complicated than that.

Hess says many conservatives are worried about the quality of the standards and that the "government overreach" argument is a valid fear about "whether the Common Core enterprise represents a slippery slope in which the federal government will play an increasing role in shaping what schools and school systems do."

"There's a real concern," Hess says, "that no matter how well-intentioned, that in the U.S. federal system. increasing federal involvement just means the federal government trying to write more rules for states, more rules for school districts, and it is unlikely to work out as intended."

While resistance to Common Core has been most visible among Republicans, particularly in the party's base, a new poll suggests that GOP voters are evenly divided over the standards. Forty-five percent of conservatives support the standards, while 46 percent are opposed, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week.

Overall, 59 percent said they either strongly or somewhat support the standards, while 31 percent said they strongly or somewhat oppose them.

Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, says the wording used in the poll likely influenced those results. The poll included no mention of the role of the federal government.

"This is exactly like abortion for 40-odd years following Roe v. Wade. If you ask about a woman's right to choose, you get 70 to 80 percent of Americans saying they favor the choice," he says. "If you frame it about the vulnerable fetus, you can get 70 to 80 percent saying there ought to be some restrictions."

Voting Against The Core

Many Republican lawmakers who now find themselves in competitive primaries are using the Common Core as a wedge issue against their challengers. And it has become an important issue among potential Republican presidential contenders looking to win over conservatives who are worried about the power of the federal government.

Jindal's break with the Core stands in stark contrast to another conservative who's been burnishing his presidential credentials: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has long been an outspoken champion of the Common Core and unwavering in his support of the standards.

On Monday, Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education urged states to move forward with implementing Core-based assessments.

"We believe that, if properly implemented, these high-quality math and English language arts standards will raise the academic bar in American classrooms," said a statement from the foundation, "ensuring children are ready for life after high school, whether that involves enrolling in college or pursuing a career."

Most other potential 2016 Republican candidates have spoken out against the Common Core. That list includes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

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